Steely Dan: Our 15 favorite songs
Steely Dan is one of the greatest bands in rock history… and one of the least influential, judging from the complete lack of literarily inclined, wildly sardonic jazz-bo masterminds that have followed. But it’s not such a terrible tragedy that they remain a genre unto themselves, since musical partners Walter Becker and Donald Fagen produced enough brilliant albums during their 1970s heyday (not to mention a couple of strong ones since their ’90s reunion) to keep a new or returning fan enthralled for steely eons.
If you only know the hits, you’re suffering from diminished Dan-hood. Celebrating Donald Fagen’s new solo album in the pages of EW, we provided a list of Steely Dan?s five most underrated tracks, as well as their five best. And we can’t stop there. Before you drink that big black cow and get out of here, and especially before the reunited duo hit the road this summer, make sure your collection includes these 15 other classic examples of Steely-ness — some staples of classic rock and oldies radio, and some rarely heard.
”Reelin’ in the Years” (Can’t Buy a Thrill, 1972)
They hit it big right at the start with a song about nostalgia. And you’re guaranteed to feel nostalgic for the days when guitar solos as spectacular as Elliott Randall’s were a common staple.
”Dirty Work” (Can’t Buy a Thrill, 1972)
Though it got a fair amount of radio play at the time, this is little-remembered as a Dan track, due to a lead vocal by soon-to-be-sacked co-frontman David Palmer. On one recent reunion tour, it was sung by the group’s female backup singers. Which makes sense: It?s a cheatin’ ballad sung from the point of view of the underappreciated Other Woman. But hearing its sex-object sentiments sung by a cuckolded guy — and a guy with as sweet a voice as Palmer — highlighted the group’s nascent irony.
”Bodhisattva” (Countdown to Ecstasy, 1973)
If they’d continued in this uncharacteristically boogie-friendly vein, they coulda been a jam-band contender. Needless to say, it’s no devotional; at the height of rock’s flirtation with Eastern religion, the Becker/Fagen take on spirituality was predictably mocking. But its blissfully frenetic coda will rock your chakras off anyway.
”Show Biz Kids” (Countdown to Ecstasy, 1973)
A brilliant slow-groove shuffle takes down the scions of Hollywood, spoiled youth who ”don’t give a f— about anybody else”… and who wear ”their Steely Dan T-shirts.” If only Paris Hilton had such style sense.
”Chain Lightning” (Katy Lied, 1975)
Becker and Fagen loved their jazz just a little too much to indulge in too many simple blues grooves like this one. You can almost imagine B.B. King doing a great rendition of this one for one of his comeback efforts, if someone were steering him toward better material. Of course, the fact that many fans believe the lyrics are about fascism, and that the title refers to the Nazi insignia, may keep it from getting covered too often.
”Any World (That I?m Welcome To)” (Katy Lied, 1975)
You can arguably count Steely Dan’s truly straightforward, non-character-driven, ”heart-on-sleeve” ballads on less than half of one hand. This lonely lament is one of them.
”Haitian Divorce” (The Royal Scam, 1976)
Musical comedy at its finest: A fresh young divorcée has some celebratory sex in foreign climes and winds up with a mixed-race baby to show for it. Well, it’s funnier than it sounds. And they don’t make talk-box guitar solos like this anymore.
”Kid Charlemagne” (The Royal Scam, 1976)
Larry Carlton’s lead here made Guitar World’s list of the greatest rock guitar solos of all time. It’s from their most guitar-dominated (and, in our eyes, best) album. Oddly, it’s the one that immediately preceded Aja, which marked a permanent shift toward a silkier sound characterized by electric piano and horn dominance.
”Home at Last” (Aja, 1977)
Nearly all seven songs on this album were radio hits — this undersung classic excluded. It’s an ironic take on the Greek myth of sirens: ”Though the danger on the rocks is surely past/Still I remain tied to the mast.” Is there any greater metaphor for it being lonely at the top?
”Here at the Western World” (Greatest Hits, 1978)
The West itself as whorehouse? Not surprisingly, this bittersweet, metaphoric ode to the fog of sexual and substance indulgence, which first appeared as a B-side, was an outtake from the super-cynical ”Royal Scam.”
”FM” (FM Soundtrack, 1978)
One of the worst movies ever made gets possibly the best rock movie theme ever. Johnny Mandel’s orchestration helps tie it to the John Barry filmic tradition, though Fagen’s edgy vocal takes it well out of Bond-land.
”The Goodbye Look” (The Nightfly, 1982)
The Cuban revolution — from the point of view of an endangered fat cat, of course. Premonitions of an imminent violent end don’t get any more sprightly than this samba from Fagen’s first solo album.
”Tomorrow?s Girls” (Kamakiriad, 1993)
An upbeat ditty from Fagen’s quasi-sci-fi second solo album establishes that all earth women are really merciless space aliens, marking a sudden turn in his work toward docudrama (just kidding).
”What a Shame About Me” (Two Against Nature, 2000)
Steely Dan’s first studio album in two decades had plenty of pent-up highlights. Foremost among them was this tale of a middle-aged bookstore clerk who?s so downtrodden that, when a fellow NYU classmate-turned-actress turns up in his store and offers him some nostalgic mercy sex, he turns it down, telling her, ”You’re talking to a ghost.” It makes any given Morrissey song sound like a self-esteem anthem.
”Janie Runaway” (Two Against Nature, 2000)
Sugar daddies are a recurring motif in the Dan catalog, from ”Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” to ”Hey Nineteen.” The untrustworthy narrator of this one seems to be preying on a girl who’s escaped from a bad home; he follows up a hint about a threesome by cooing to his young charge, ”Who gets to spend her birthday in Spain? Possibly you!” Entirely hilarious and just a little bit disturbing.